China’s Petulance Makes for Unhealthy Relationships

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gilllard in China

On overseas trade and diplomatic trips Chinese leaders will always make a point of publicly citing the strengths and benefits of the trade relations between itself and the host country. This relationship is often framed by talk of mutual respect and friendship from both sides, as well as the characterising of the relationship as one of fairness and balance. In these cases China is cast as being prepared to “assist in the development” of the host nation as a “partner” rather than merely an investor.

This talk of “economic friendship”, specifically regarding the West, has recently looked tenuous and has in fact come to a head, mainly regarding developments on Chinese undervaluation of the Yuan against the US dollar. Regardless of the strength of trade relationships however, overtures of sincere Chinese friendship has been shown to come with demanding preconditions, sometimes involving the internal policy decisions of ‘friendly’ nations. In the way that China commits political overreach like this, it damages its reputation as a rational state and also risks alienating moderate actors in the West; it also belittles the concept of “Chinese friendship”, consigning it to nonsense.

Kadeer and the Dalai Lama

Specifically on issues of human rights has China recently made the loudest demands of its ‘friends’. In 2009 for example, the visit of a Ms. Rebiya Kadeer, a Chinese minority rights advocate to Australia was met with condemnation and the cancellation of a high level diplomatic exchange between the two nations. The conflict intensified when Beijing tried to stop the woman from speaking at the National Press Club in Canberra at the same time as it attempted to halt the screening of a film of the Muslim woman’s life at the Melbourne film festival (whose website was later the victim of a Chinese hacking).

Similarly, Norway’s people and internal affairs have also been harangued after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo; a pro democracy campaigner in 2010. Furious with the incident, Beijing demanded an apology and through their ambassador, threatened damage to trade deals and relations with the small nation. To add to the vitriol, three weeks after the awards, the Nobel Prize website was also hacked. These Chinese threats and condemnations (like those to Australia), came regardless of the fact that the government had little to do with the events as they transpired. In both of these cases China’s behaviour was condemned by many Western commentators as bullying and a blatant attempt at interference in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations.

On the issue of international visits by the Dalai Lama, China also has a long record of voicing loud indignation, interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign nations and engaging in threatening behaviour. Recently, the Archbishop of South Africa angrily attacked the ANC government for what he argued was the ceding to Chinese demands to greatly delay the visitor Visa of the Dalai Lama. In the past, China has also attempted to interfere in Australian, French and American government meetings with the Tibetan political leader and it has threatened both the US and Australia with a worsening in relations and Nicholas Sarkozy personally, with trade sanctions against his country if he met with him.

Chinese consumers protests French businesses

More subtly, China has also used its monopoly over the media to mobilise consumer sentiment against the economic interests of foreign nations who it disagrees with. Notably during the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, the state media ran angry stories on what it saw as French complicity in pro Tibetan rallies. The resulting public outcry led to angry rallies and a damaging consumer boycott of French goods, all of which were later publicly supported by the Chinese Foreign Minister and republished for effect in the Chinese news sphere.

In 2011 this behaviour reached, what is hopefully a watershed moment in Sino-Western relations, regarding Western legislation aimed at punishing lower Chinese industry standards and Yuan currency manipulation. On these issues China hit back by blatantly threatening both the US and EU with damaging trade wars both in its press and through diplomatic channels. Specifically regarding recent legislation to combat Chinese currency undervaluation in the US and an emissions trading scheme that would tax Chinese air carriers in Europe, China has made the ultimate faux pas of friendship; openly threatening to harm ones friends.

The aggression and indignation that China deals with its ‘trade friends’ when they exercise their right to self determination or defend their citizens right’s toward freedom of speech and expression is bad PR for a nation that is already mistrusted in the West. It implies a lack of respect for important Western moral institutions and in effect asks them to take up Chinese domestic policy as their foreign policy; namely that human rights come second to state power, all Chinese dissidents are terrorists and that China’s monetary controls are fair. The Chinese media is wont to complain week in and week out about Western distrust and disrespect of China, but their behaviour belies an inability or refusal toward tactful diplomacy in their dealings with the West. This stance, which is commonly interpreted as being disrespectful, runs the risk of reinforcing hard-line political sentiment in the West to mirror China’s own; potentially resulting in more brinksmanship and conflict.

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